South Korea has been called the “Cadillac” of international adoption for its ethics and legality. Many reformists who criticize sending countries such as Guatemala and Cambodia maintain that if only those programs would be up to the gold standard of South Korea, the practice of international adoption would be fair, ethical, legal, in the best interests of the child, and dignified and respectful toward the birth family.
I am interested in posting my own adoption papers here online in order to publicly document what has really happened in South Korea. Unlike those who are working in adoption agencies, I have no interest in keeping adoption programs open for the sake of my job security. Unlike some adoptees, I also do not find the thought of being the world’s last Korean adoptee a sad thought, either. We should not be mourned as a dying race any more than cloned goats. That is to say, our existence is due not to nature, but a reproductive technology. Our existence is due to paper shuffling.
Although my story does not involve literal kidnapping or trafficking, as many others do, I can document the misrepresentation of my social history and natural family’s circumstances to my adoptive parents, which I believe is common and which ultimately victimizes the adoptee, the birthfamily, and the adoptive parents. I can also document the process by which I became a legal orphan, which is common to ALL international adoptees, and which has lifelong effects on both the adoptee and the birthfamily.
What is legal orphaning?
At its root, all adoptions depend on the rupture of the original family. Legally, this is accomplished by making a child “available for adoption.” This process of legal — not literal — orphaning shapes the everyday reality of the natural family and the adopted person not just at the time of adoption, but in fact, for the entire future. Therefore this practical and necessary component of international adoption deserves sincere and sustained examination.
Because legal orphaning for the purposes of adoption is different from orphaning as it is commonly and intuitively understood (i.e., a child with no family), the American public intermittently becomes outraged when they find out that to the American government, “orphan” does not mean orphan. This is reflected in the occasional shut-downs of adoption agencies that misrepresent the social histories of children, and also in some high-profile cases such as the case of David Banda, the Malawian child whom Madonna recently adopted, who had a living, albeit impoverished, father.
Introducing my legal and supposedly ethical adoption
At the time I was sent to the U.S. in 1972, Korea was also impoverished. Less than 20 years after the Korean War, in the 11th year of the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the country was rapidly industrializing and my father was working in construction. He was also a heavy drinker. There was no treatment program for his alcoholism and no safe house for my mother to take herself and her children to get away from his abuse. My mother was in a situation that could be easily handled in the U.S.: mom goes to safe house with kids for a while, dad gets treatment, family goes through counseling. But in a country lacking in social services, the only solution available for my mother was to relinquish her two youngest children.
Please try to think of this not in terms of far-away Koreans you don’t know, but in terms of the people who are close to you. Please think of any four-and-a-half year old child you love (the age of my sister at the time) or any six month old (my age at the time) and imagine sending them to a foreign country to never be seen again. Please think of any American you know who has ever had to access unemployment payments, the food shelf, or Alcoholics Anonymous or other such services, or someone you love who has been a victim of domestic violence who has accessed a women’s shelter. Now imagine that those services don’t exist, and intead all those Americans who use such services have their children sent off to foreign countries to never be heard from again.That is the reality for families that have lost their children to international adoption.
I arrived with my older sister to Minnesota in September 1972. We were not legally adopted until nearly a year later. However, by Christmas that year, we had contact straight from my Korean mother, who had somehow managed to get our American address from the adoption agency. I take that to be a sign of her fierce love and determination. I take that to be a sign that she did not want to give us away, but that it was sort of a “choice” on the order of, “Do you prefer firing squad, guillotine, or hanging?” I also take that to be a sign that nobody explained to her what international adoption really means (i.e., irrevocable, permanent, and even if birthmothers are promised that they can have contact or photos, there is nothing in place to enforce that promise.)
Wait a minute! Don’t you think it’s pretty strange that under the circumstances (our parents only had us for 3 months when our Korean mother made contact, we were still officially under South Korean guardianship, we were not yet legally adopted, we were not yet U.S. citizens) that my American parents made no efforts at all to check in with the agency to see what was really going on? Maybe crazy, or more likely, from what I can tell about the adoption “community” — perfectly typical. After all, by the time they get their kids, the parents have gone through months of background checks, homestudies, paperwork — and they have also shelled out thousands of dollars for the adoption. They have adopted with sincere hearts and now they want everthing to be fine.
Here I am on my baptism day, just a few weeks after arrival in the U.S.
My mom is elated, but clearly oblivious to her child’s emotional state. It seems that, despite her wishes, everything is not fine. Maybe I am trying to tell her that I am not an orphan. There are actually very few adoptees who have no parents and no extended relatives to take care of them. Yet there are many adoptees. So, according to the U.S. government,
- The child has no parents due to the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation from or loss of both parents; or
- The sole or surviving parent is incapable of providing proper care and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption**
This definition seems quite simple, but it is not mentioned here that child may have extended family capable of taking care of them and still be considered an orphan. Also, it is not mentioned in this definition that parents should not be coerced into relinquishing their parental rights, and they should fully understand what “irrevocably released… for adoption” means before they sign. It also should be taken into account that the definition of “proper care” may be problematic because what “proper care” looks like in the U.S. (where all the kids under these laws are going) probably looks different in the sending country. Also, there is no mention here that parents who are not able to provide proper care should have the right to resources so that they can properly care for their children according to their cultural standard. If they still do not want to raise their own children, then they should certainly be able to relinquish their parental rights. Yet how many parents of children who may enter into the international adoption system and may be pegged as “adoptable” are actually getting any aid to raise their families themselves? What is the cost of aid shelled out by an adoption agency to a country? Is it that in exchange for X many children, you can get $Y aid to care for the others in the country?
I was never an orphan.
Now I’ll show you through my personal set of papers how I became a legal — not real — orphan. I believe that the only thing unusual about my papers is that I have them. The only reason I was able to get the Korean papers is because I had permission from my Korean family.
So you see the dilemma — if the agencies require permission from the birthfamily to get the papers, how are most adoptees or adoptive families ever going to see the papers if they haven’t located the birthfamily in the first place?
Here I am documented here on my family registry. In Korea, this is called a “hojuk” and it is a legal document. In the absence of birth certificates in Korea, these documents record births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc.
For future reference, note that my name is written both in Korean and also in Chinese (Koreans use both traditional Chinese and the indigenous Korean alphabet.) My birthday here is marked on the lunar calendar — as is customary in Korea — as January 24, 1972 (on the solar calendar, that translates into March 9, 1972).
Side note on the usefulness of orphanages: My father registered me — a child who was already sent away — less than a year after I was sent to the U.S. Perhaps this is a documentation of regret. My sister, two years younger than I am, has the same mom and dad and grew up in our family. I believe that if I would have been allowed to stay in the orphanage for just nine more months as a temporary solution, I would have grown up in my family.
Now that you’ve had a look at my entry on the family registry, take a look at my dad’s entry on the family registry:
Please note that our family seat is the North Korean city of Onyang and the date of my parents’ marriage is listed as 1967, five years before my birth.
How to make a paper orphan
Whether or not purposely falsified, I don’t think any prospective adoptive parents intend to adopt a child who is falsely represented, either about parentage, health, social history, or conditions in their country. I believe that adopters are deeply invested in believing in the power of agencies to accurately represent “orphans,” even though it’s obvious that even Korea, the gold standard of adoption, has not accurately represented all of the children it has sent overseas. Is the risk of sending misrepresented children permanently overseas worth it?
In Korea, an orphan hojuk must be created in order to expedite adoptions. What you can see here is how an adoption that appears to be perfectly legal may be in reality based upon falsified information and fabricated papers, created by the adoption agency and governmental institutions working together.
My Korean mother claimed that she brought me to the orphanage herself, so there is no reason why any facts of my social history should be wrong. Yet here is my orphan hojuk, where we can see how simple yet very important facts began to become fictions. (Please excuse my handwriting on this paper, which I scrawled on there as I translated for myself in utter disbelief.)
Let me stress again that without this paper, there can be no adoption. This legal paper is for many adoptees the only legal proof of their Korean existence. Ironically, the children do not legally exist until they enter into the internatinoal adoption process.
This hojuk is the first of a series of papers that is part of the legal orphaning process. Here we see how the legal identity of the adoptee is systematically destroyed simply so that it can be recreated through the Korean papers (and later created yet again through American papers). The X through my name indicates that I have been taken off the hojuk because I was adopted. They made the hojuk with one purpose: so they could take me off it.
Important identifying points where the fake orphan hojuk differs from the real hojuk:
1. Obviously the creator of this document was educated enough to write in Chinese. Yet only my common surname, Jeong, remains in Chinese, whereas my Korean name, Kyong-Ah, bears no Chinese characters and has been reduced to Korean syllables with no meaning making me less identifiable.
2. My family seat, identified as the North Korean county of Onyang on our family hojuk, is listed as the southern South Korean city of Naju on the orphan hojuk — which has no relation to my family at all. This is a completely random yet deliberate fabrication.
3. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the hojuk is that it says that I was sent to the Netherlands. Moreover, four years after I was sent to the U.S., this document was updated to reflect that I had gained my Dutch citizenship and six years later, the record was updated to show that my Korean nationality had been eliminated. This is a deliberate and sustained fabrication.
Once again, regarding the terrible swiftness and finality of international adoption: This orphan hojuk was made on the solar calendar April 10, 1972. Yet Koreans always use the lunar calendar. That means I was tagged for international adoption to a Western country only 20 days after my arrival at the orphanage. So much for family preservation or domestic adoption efforts.
Other Korean papers misname our Korean sisters, all of whom have the same father. Our brother by a different father is not mentioned at all.
Solving lies with more lies
The lunar-solar thing is a perennial problem for adoptees who are return to live in Korea. It is common that neither adoptee nor immigration office official know that while Koreans record their hojuks on the lunar calendar, overseas adoptees’ orphan hojuks are on the solar calendar.
In my case, the lunar-solar birthday thing passed by unnoticed the first time I applied for my F-4 visa, which is a special visa for ethnic Koreans including adoptees which grants people rights that are close to citizenship. I had used my family hojuk, so I had a Korean birthdate on the hojuk and an American birthdate on my passport. However, they caught it when I tried to renew my visa.
In order to resolve my troubles at the immigration office, I had to get my orphan hojuk from my adoption agency since my Korean birthdate is actually a day later on my family hojuk than it is on the orphan hojuk. Ironically, since my whole American identity (and passport) is based upon the fabricated orphan hojuk, and the false birthday on my hojuk matches the false birthday on my passport, solving lies with more lies was the only way I could renew my visa.
However, the problem remained that my orphan hojuk says I was sent to the Netherlands and I have an American passport. So this paper, created for me by my adoption agency in 2006, updates the information to say that I was actually sent to the U.S.
The name is of course my current name — not the name my American parents used to adopt me. I think this goes to show that the “truth” of legal identity is extremely susceptible to manipulation and easy to create — and basically depends on whoever is making the documents that day.
Who wouldn’t want to adopt a kid from a background like this?? (Or for that matter, any one of my friends whose English language social histories say almost exactly the same thing.)
Although my mother claimed that she brought me to the orphanage first and my sister later with the help of a neighbor, the papers say that she had “deserted soon after giving birth to Kyong Ah” (me). The papers also claim that my parents were unmarried, when according to our family hojuk, they were married for five years at the time of my birth, and that my sister and I were brought to the orphanage solely by our father. My father here is reported to have “realized that any possibility of reunion with the child’s mother cannot be expected in the future,” even though in reality they were married for another 23 years after the adoption and even raised another child together.
Other papers reported that I was “healthy” and did not present any “care or medical problem.” However, my mother told me that she had brought me to the orphanage because my father had tried to kill me. I had been born outside, almost smothered by my father with a blanket, and thrown out of a window. The reason my mother eventually brought my sister for adoption was because when she came to check on me, I was in such poor health that she feared I would die. So she had brought me home again to nurse me back to health. My father allowed it, only on the condition that she would give away another child when she returned me to the orphanage, which is how my older sister saved my life with her own.
Of course none of this family story is reflected in the official record. In the official record my mother looks like a deserter and my father, left with so many children, seems very pitiable, indeed the victim of a heartless woman, and the motherless, deserted, illegitimate children are indeed very attractive for adoption.
How can you tell if a child has been legally relinquished?
Remember how my poor father supposedly had to bring the kids to the orphanage on the same day, since our mother abandoned us the day after I was born? Here we have two relinquishment forms specifically for overseas adoption created on two different days.
(Imagine being forced to sign that the same day your bring your child to the orphanage.)
First, notice on the top that there is a word circled and then crossed out. That’s the word for “mother.” First they wrote that my mother relinquished me, and then crossed it out and circled “father.” On the left is my mother’s name — the family name “Lee” in Chinese, and her thumbprint. On the left is my father’s name, all in Chinese, and an oval stamp that appears to bear his name.Now, remember how my father supposedly relinquished my sister and me both at the same time?
The paper to relinquish my sister was created April 11, 1972, twenty-one days after my relinquishment. That corroborates my mother’s story, which is that she came back to the orphanage later to check on me and found me on the brink of death for lack of food and medicine. She asked my father if she could take me back to nurse me back to health, and he said she could, as long as she gave away another daughter when she took me back to the orphanage. That’s how my sister came to be relinquished. Here’s the relinquishment form for my sister:
Notice this time that the stamp for my father is different and obscured, and his name is written in only Korean this time. My mother’s name is also written in only Korean. I am not a handwriting expert, but it appears that in both relinquishment forms, the handwriting for both the “signature” of my mom and dad are the same. Can I be sure that these are the signatures, thumbprints, and stamps of my parents? Might it be one of them signing for both, or might it be neither of their signatures, but signatures forged by an agency worker?
Side note: Would my American parents have adopted my sister and I if the American adoption agency had seen these relinquishment papers, and decided that they were dubious enough so that they couldn’t be sure that we had been legally relinquished? Would they have adopted us if they could have read Korean and saw that the Korean language papers did not match the English ones? Would they have adopted us if the social history had said, “Wife desperately wants children, but husband is an abusive alcoholic and cannot access social programs”? Would they have adopted us of they knew that the consquences of those mass adoptions would be that today, in South Korea, women who really are single continue to relinquish their children because foreigners have created a system which efficiently cleanses South Korea of its “problems” instead of creating its own indigenous solutions?
What is plain that without any cultural or linguistic knowledge of South Korea, and without seeing the Korean papers or having met the birth family, there was no possible way for them to know the true situation.
Whether the relinquishment is legal or not, with the papers in place, the process can now get started on the American side. Even within the same month that my sister and I are recorded as slated to go to the Netherlands, our American adopters, whom we have never met, have applied for our immigrations as the “immediate relatives” and “orphans,” and we have becoming “beneficiaries” of people who are, to us, complete strangers.
Even before the petition is approved, however, we are issued Korean travel visas to go to the U.S. Notice that the line anticipating the date of the “bearer’s return” is completely crossed out.
As part of the adoption agreement through Lutheran Social Service, my parents had to agree to raise us as Christians. We were baptized in church about two weeks after our arrival, even before we were legally adopted and our names legally changed. It appears that at the last moment, my place of birth was corrected from communist “North Korea” to “South Korea.”
My legal adoption was completed about one year later. There is no indication of where I came from.
After that, the birth certificate was able to be created and falsified. Here there is no indication that I ever had other parents, except that was born in Korea. Once attractively marketed by the adoption agency as “illegitimate,” ensconsed within an American family, I have now become “legitimate.”
Finally, four years after the adoption, I am naturalized as an American citizen. The American adoption, the Korean social death, and change of identity is now complete.
(Child learns to smile with mouth but still has worried and furrowed brows.)
At the time, I was the same age as my sister when she was adopted. And while I remember that day in the courthouse quite clearly as a 4½ year old, my sister has no memory whatsoever of her previous life in Korea. Her memory of the first 4½ years of her life has been completely obliterated, and this is very common in the adoptee community. So not only have we been legally erased and reconstructed, but also psychically erased and reconstructed.
The lifetime consequences of legal orphaning
The amazing part is that we are ever reunited with our families at all.
With family members and adoptees often separated by literally half the globe, families wishing to rebuild their relationships might consider relocating to live closer to one another. Many adult South Korean adoptees have been able to relocate to South Korea to be with their families. However, moving to what is now a foreign country can be difficult if not impossible for most adult adoptees. A more practical solution for some would be to sponsor the immigrations of their families to the U.S.
However, under the Immigration and Nationality Act 101(b), American adult intercountry adoptees are specifically banned by law from sponsoring the lawful immigration of their natural parents. Therefore adoptees’ paper orphanhood (as it pertains to real family situations) continues to be enforced throughout a lifetime by American immigration law. The global implications of transnational adoption from KoreaIn this short article I have used my own records as an example. But having lived in Korea among many reunited adoptees since 2004, I can attest that these kinds of stories of false representation, as well as far worse — children literally being kidnapped, Korean parents being outright lied to — are commonplace. I realize that I have been very lucky to be able to have the resources to leave the U.S. and come to Korea for awhile. I wish that every adoptee and every adoptive parent would have that opportunity. Yet only 2% of South Korean adoptees have been reunited, and even fewer adoptive parents take the time to live in Korea for an extended period of time so they can understand the language and contemporary culture. What seems morally ambiguous from the U.S. is not ambiguous at all after you’ve sat across the table from a Korean woman who tells you how her children were kidnapped and she had no idea if they were alive or dead or in Korea or not for thirty years, and finally with someone’s help she found them in the Netherlands. It is absolutely heartbreaking. Although statistically people say that the rate that children are kidnapped and stolen for the purposes of adoption is low, I wonder who is setting the rules for how much collateral damage is acceptable? How much everyday, run-of-the-mill fabrication in social histories is acceptable? In a situation where the lifetime consequences are permanent, how much margin of error is acceptable?I believe that the Korean adoption system, which is considered to be risk-free, has historically been full of risk. We know from the KBS program produced only 2 years ago, as well as anonymous chatboards for single women who have recently relinquished their children that the Korean system is corrupt and taking children away from mothers is not a humanitarian act. It was not humanitarian thirty years ago and it was not thirty days ago. It breaks their hearts.
Yet the agencies, which are selling a $25,000 product, continually uphold Korea as so above-board that it doesn’t even have to sign the Hague Convention! (Whereas Guatemala has — obviously international law is prescriptive rather than practical.)
If Korean adoption is the gold star standard of above-board, legal, ethical adoption practice, what must the other programs be like?
Although I suppose each sending country is different in its particular pathologies, as a product of the world’s best international adoption system, I highly doubt that it is possible to reform mass international adoption from anywhere in the world to the point that ethical adoptions can be assured. I believe that the system is so incredibly risky that it confounds me that anyone even engages in it at all.
If Korea is gold, I’d hate to see a lump of coal.
If Korea’s a Cadillac, I’d hate to see a Yugo.
You get the picture.
Click here to read the story of Kimette, an adoptee who was old enough at the time she was separated from her family to remember exactly how she ended up getting sent to the U.S. for adoption, and all the lies that it took to get her there. The story is reminiscent in some ways of Deann Borshay’s story, when she says that the adoption workers told her not to tell anyone that she had been substituted for another child (and of course nobody noticed that she was not the same kid as her parents were supposed to adopt!)
Please read The Aftermath of Abusive Adoption Practices in the Lives of Adoption Triad Members: Responding to Adoption Triad Members Victimized by Abusive Adoption Practices by David and Desiree Smolin.